During his first season as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, Brandon Staley became widely known for his aggressive fourth-down decision-making.
No team in the NFL went for it on fourth down at a higher rate than the Chargers, who did so 31.5 percent of the time. The Chargers were also quite effective on those fourth-down opportunities, converting them at a 64.7 percent clip -- tied for the fourth-best mark in the league. The aggressiveness helped the Chargers secure some early-season wins against the Browns and Chiefs, but late in the season, Staley was criticized when his aggressiveness did not work out quite as well.
Fast forward to 2022, and Staley has apparently become much more conservative. Against the division rival Chiefs on Thursday night, Staley chose to kick in several places where he typically would have gone for it a year ago. After going for it at a 54.5 percent clip on fourth-and-4 or shorter last season (and converting those chances 62.5 percent of the time), Staley chose to punt or kick a field goal on five of seven such opportunities on Thursday night. According to at least one calculation, the kicking choices cost Los Angeles percentage 11.6 points of win probability. Some, but not all of that (10.1 percentage points) was made up by two choices to go for it in similar situations.
Explaining his decision-making, Staley said, "Just wanted to give our defense a chance to compete. I loved the way we were playing. I felt like that was the formula -- to flip the field there. I feel like we were aggressive when we needed to be tonight. We converted all four of our fourth downs. Just felt like, with who's over there (Patrick Mahomes), and the way our defense was playing, I felt like the field position would be a big edge for our defense to be able to pin them back there. And I like the way our defense competed tonight."
It's striking to hear Staley talk about his decision-making this way, especially given the way he has talked about such opportunities in the past. Consider the difference in his postgame explanation and what he told The Athletic this offseason about his decision-making process:
"There has to be a fearlessness to play in this game, and what I wanted to establish was that," Staley says. "The history of this team when I got here, it was like someone's going to get hurt, they're going to blow a lead, something catastrophic is going to happen. There's this 'Chargering' thing. There's all of these external factors that I know in my life, they're just all excuses. They're just all excuses.
"And so, how do you change that? Well, you have to do things different, you have to have a different approach. … Our mindset's going to be on us, it's not going to be on the opponent. It's going to be on us. So creating that fearless mindset of, we are going to be aggressive, we're going to put the ball in our hands, we're going to trust our guys to make plays.
"If we lose, we're going to do it on our terms, not someone else's terms."
Specifically, the portion about the mindset being "on us, it's not going to be on the opponent" is relevant here, since Staley cited Mahomes being on the other sideline as a reason to kick rather than go in those situations. That directly contradicts what he told The Athletic, and also doesn't really hold up to that much scrutiny.
With Mahomes on the other team, you likely need to score even more points in order to win. Kicking takes away the chance of doing so. And if you're that confident in your defense and the way it is playing, you should be confident enough in them getting the ball back even if you go for it and do not convert. The 2021 version of Staley would almost surely have said the same. Perhaps the criticism of his decision-making down the stretch of last season has pushed Staley into a more conservative stance on these issues. Perhaps he just did not like the way these specific opportunities arose in this specific game. We'll find out more as the season goes along.